Definition of formal business attire

Updated July 19, 2017

Formal business attire is clothing meant for serious, professional occasions. Unlike "business casual," which leaves a lot of room for imagination, formal business is stricter, crisper and less forgiving. A good rule of thumb to determine if your clothing is formal business: If you're uncomfortable, self-conscious and can't do a cartwheel freely, you are probably doing it right. This guideline covers formal business styles for the Western world and does not include clothing for special ethnic or cultural groups.

Formal Business Attire for Men

The first item of importance for men is a tie. Once you pick out a tie, gentlemen, you can base the rest of your ensemble around it. Acceptable ties for formal businesswear tend to be modest colours of grey, navy blue, brown, black and burgundy. Pale yellow and pale pink (yes, men wear pink) are also fine as long as they are not too bright. Patterns on ties are fine. The most common patterns are paisley, striped and polka dots but the pattern should not be too loud. Formal business ties should not have pictures of Mickey Mouse or racing cars, although some men do wear such things in formal environments just to break the tension. Formal business attire also includes dress trousers and a suit jacket made of a slippery or scratchy synthetic material. Silk, rayon, and wool are acceptable. Cotton is not formal. The suit should be a dark or modest colour such as black, navy, or grey. Like the tie, formal business suits should not be loud or flashy. A dress shirt of white is appropriate for all formal business attire. Striped dress shirts are also acceptable as long as they go well with the suit and tie. While it may be tempting to wear a pair of dark sneakers, recreational boots, or loafers, these are not formal shoes. Formal shoes have laces, except for cowboy boots, which are acceptable if kept polished.

Formal Business Attire for Women

Women who wish to wear formal business attire can't go wrong with a suit. Pantsuits and skirt suits are equally acceptable, along with a blouse. Colours are more flexible for women than for men. Women can wear suits of white, off-white, beige, brown, blue, burgundy, pink, and yellow, as well as the basic grey and black. Blouses can be coloured or patterned as long as they are tactful. Dresses and skirt sets can be considered formal business attire, but caution must be taken to ensure professional appearance. Bright flowers, busy designs, or patterns of little cows might be considered inappropriate in a formal atmosphere. Women, therefore, should verify what style is acceptable. For women, boots and dress shoes are considered formal. Typically, shoes should have a heel, but not all women can or want to wear heels and can probably get away with low shoes. Stockings should be worn with dress shoes. In certain circumstances, dress socks are acceptable replacements.


Accessories are fairly flexible, even for formal attire. Cuff-links, for example, can be traditional gold or silver, or they can be in the shape of aeroplanes or musical notes. Women can wear almost any type of jewellery, as long as it is tactful and matches the outfit. One thing about accessories--the only way you can go wrong with jewellery is if you wear something symbolically offensive. Your necklaces should not have pictures of drug plants, and pins should not be in the shape of a swastika (although, that symbol was originally a sign of peace). Flashy accessories like large medallions and huge diamond bracelets are also inappropriate. Diamonds, although formal, are sometimes not considered businesslike.

What Not to Wear

There are some things that completely ruin the formal business look. For men, undershirts that are darker than the dress shirt are inappropriate as are T-shirts with lettering that show through the dress shirt. By the same token, ladies, do not wear a black bra with a white shirt. Plaid, flowers, and other patterns are not business attire. As stated above, sometimes women can wear patterned dresses, but they are really more formal than business. Perfume and cologne should be worn modestly. You can be the best dressed person at the meeting, but it won't mean much if no one can bear to sit next to you. Hats are not formal business attire, so don't wear hats in a strict professional environment.

Tips for Successful Business Dress

Always keep your business clothes ironed. Have them steam cleaned and pressed at the dry cleaners regularly. Never forget to wear deodorant as formal clothes tend to cause excessive perspiration. Mix and match your accessories. You may have four of the same grey suit, but they will not look the same if you wear different jewellery or pins or cufflinks.

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About the Author

Cheryl A. Frost earned a Bachelor of Arts in writing and linguistics from Georgia Southern University with a focus on technical communications. She has served as a technical writer for 10 years, specializing in IT infrastructure, security and networking. Her recreational interests include robotics, computer programming, and general technology.